Opportunities lost?

Matthew Ladner

On March 10, President Obama gave a major education speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. In that speech, he stated clearly:

Secretary Duncan will use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars: It's not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works.

Established by Congress and D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams in 2004, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program gives 1,700 low-income students the chance to attend a private school of their choice. Two of Malia and Sasha Obama's classmates at the elite Sidwell Friends private school attend with the assistance of Opportunity Scholarships.

The results are in: The program works. In fact, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships program is one of the few programs funded by the United States Department of Education for which we actually do have supportive evidence of the highest possible scientific quality.

The U.S. Department of Education has been funding a multi-year random assignment study of the impact of the program. In the most recent evaluation, program students showed gains equivalent to 3.7 months of additional reading achievement, a statistically significant difference from the control group.

This is typical of random assignment studies of voucher achievement: Students do not instantly bolt ahead of their peers. Instead they make steady progress over time until the difference between participants and non-participants becomes statistically significant. In years four and on, the differences would steadily grow larger and larger.

Despite President Obama's inspiring rhetoric regarding embracing what works, the U.S. Department of Education attempted to bury this important study, releasing it on a Friday afternoon. This is a classic bureaucratic maneuver to minimize press attention, as attention is diverted elsewhere and Saturdays are the lowest circulation days for newspapers.

The results shown by the study are nothing short of phenomenal, considering the long trail of failure and frustration in previous attempts to significantly improve the education of disadvantaged children. It is worth bearing in mind that the maximum size of the Opportunity Scholarship, at $7,500, is a fraction of the average per-pupil spending in the D.C. public schools.

Congress voted to end the Opportunity Scholarship program absent reauthorization just a few weeks ago, before the evaluation was released. The action of Nevada's two United States Senators couldn't have been more polarized. Sen. John Ensign led the fight to save the program, while Sen. Harry Reid limited the debate on the subject and voted against continuation of the program. Several Democrats are on record as saying that the evidence would ultimately guide their decision on this program, but they were deprived of the opportunity to examine that evidence.

In the reauthorization battle to come, not only the futures of 1,700 low-income D.C. children hang in the balance. The moral authority of the Obama administration is at stake as well.

Unless the Senate majority can live up to the President's stated ideal, they will have aided and abetted in a monstrous decision of ripping opportunity away from a group of the nation's most disadvantaged students.

As Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid has a large say in whether the program lives or dies. If Sen. Reid has any doubt about whether this program should continue, there is a simple question to ask. Senator, would you enroll your children in violence-ridden D.C. public schools, with decades-long records of academic failure? Bill and Hillary Clinton didn't. Barack and Michelle Obama didn't. Other members of Congress don't.

What about you, dear reader? Would you put your children in those schools?

If failing D.C. public schools aren't good enough for your children in theory, then they aren't good enough for low-income District children in practice.

The children need the help of leaders from both parties — leaders with the moral courage to stand up to special interests and follow the evidence where it leads.

Matthew Ladner is vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute and a policy fellow at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.